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Business Owners May Be Liable for Business Debts and Transactions Through the Alter-Ego Doctrine

Erin Lloyd - Thursday, December 03, 2015

The chief purpose of forming a corporate entity is to protect the business owner’s personal assets. Incorporation protects these individuals from being held personally liable for their company’s debts and obligations. However, the use of corporate form is a privilege, and abuse of its protections can have serious consequences.

For example, when a corporate entity is so dominated by an individual that it primarily transacts the individual’s business instead of its own, it will be called the individual’s alter-ego and the corporate form will be disregarded to achieve an equitable result, Rohmer Associates v. Rohmer, 36 A.D.3d 990 (3rd Dept. 2007).

In order to prevail on an alter-ego claim, a plaintiff must establish that there was such a “unity of interest and control” between the individual defendant and the entity, or between two entities, that they cannot really be said to be separate. See Rohmer Assoc. Inc. v. Rohmer, 830 N.Y.S.2d 356, at *1 (App. Div. 2007). An alter-ego determination by a court does not technically make one entity vicariously liable for the debts of another. Rather, it results in disregarding the separateness of the entities as a legal fiction and treats them as one in the same entity for all purposes. This is applied to limited liability companies as well as traditional corporations.

“Alter-Ego” Liability Does Not Require a Showing of Fraud

It is not necessary to allege or prove fraud in order to pierce the corporate veil under the alter-ego theory. What is required is proof that a corporation is being used by an individual to accomplish his own and not the corporation’s business, and that the business owner’s control is being used to perpetrate a wrongful or unjust act. The question is whether the corporation is being used as a “shell” by the individual business owner to advance his own purely personal interests at the expense of another party, typically a judgment creditor, Port Chester Electrical Construction Corp. v. Atlas, 40 N.Y.2d 652 (1976). In making an alter-ego determination, a court is concerned with reality and not form. Wajilam Exports v. ATL Shipping, 475 F.Supp.2d 275 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). The focus is on the actual conduct of the dominating business owner and the impact of that conduct on innocent parties such as judgment creditors.

New York Courts Evaluate a Number of Different Factors

The factors relied upon by New York’s courts in applying the alter-ego theory include the use of alleged corporate funds for personal purposes, commingling corporate and personal funds, shuttling funds between personal and corporate accounts, the use of common telephone numbers and office space, using the corporation as a “shell” to advance personal rather than corporate interests, and otherwise abusing the corporate form.

When the use of an incorporation entity privilege of is abused, business owners may be held liable through the alter-ego doctrine in the State of New York. As with any legal transaction matter, individuals are encouraged to consult with an attorney before taking any official action, as every situation is unique and should be independently analyzed.

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